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A generally compelling story with obvious contemporary and global resonances gets an unfortunately dry and surface-level retelling in Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto’s Aum: The Cult at the End of the World, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.
The Cult at the End of the World still offers interesting details, especially at a moment when every other television documentary or docuseries seems to be cult-focused. But, especially in its homestretch, I felt like the film was awash in hastily defended conclusions and bad choices involving at least one key interview subject.
Aum: The Cult at the End of the World
Directors: Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto
1 hour 46 minutes
The film begins, in medias res, with the March 20, 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway, a horrifying event that left 13 people dead, thousands poisoned and — if you listen to several interview subjects and don’t require corroborating analysis — marked the conclusion of the Japanese economic resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s.
The attack was the final escalation for Aum Shinrikyo, which started as a guru-driven yoga practice built around Shoko Asahara, became an internationally expansive religious and political organization, and then transformed into a doomsday cult that violently targeted any opposition.
This all played out in the public eye, with Aum Shinrikyo producing commercials and promotional anime, with Asahara appearing on some of the country’s biggest talk shows, with a general visibility that gives Braun and Yanagimoto ample documentation.
Using the book of the same title by David E. Kaplan and Andrew Marshall as source material, and relying on Kaplan and Marshall for ample exposition, the documentary takes a somewhat jumbled approach to Aum Shinrikyo’s history and how it aligned with Japan’s history of governmental interactions with religious groups. The point that’s well-made is that Aum Shinrikyo was operating in plain sight and that any level of concern or even skepticism from law enforcement entities probably could have saved many lives. But since the documentary’s sourcing tied to Japanese law enforcement or anything bureaucratic is non-existent, even the proof for something this obvious is unconvincing. When several people at the end of the documentary shift the blame to those forces, my only reaction was, “That may be true, but it isn’t really the story you were able to tell.”
Elsewhere, the documentary’s sourcing, other than Kaplan, Marshall and Japanese journalist Shoko Egawa, is decent but erratically utilized. There are people with close ties to Tsutsumi Sakamoto, an anti-cult lawyer whose disappearance was blamed on Aum, as well as several of the family members who initially mobilized with Sakamoto against Asahara and faced their own assassination attempts. There’s an interview with Yoshiyuki Kouno, the innocent civilian who was blamed for a pre-subway sarin attack as part of a shoddy investigation that comes closest to proving the documentary’s point about institutional failures.
But then there are large gaps. The depiction of the subway attack itself, still plenty harrowing thanks to dispatch recordings and surveillance and news filming, is hampered by a total lack of first-person accounts from that day. The way that Aum Shinrikyo was able to expand to Russia — source of the cult’s munitions and possibly the sarin itself — after the fall of the Soviet Union is maybe the most fascinating and least illuminated aspect of the entire documentary. The sourcing within Aum itself is frustratingly weak as well, with one or two cult members who appear early to give basic information and then vanish.
The documentary’s biggest “get” is also its biggest problem. Fumihiro Joyu was one of Asahara’s chief lieutenants and, in the aftermath of the attack, served as something of an Aum spokesman. He describes himself as one of the most hated men in Japan, but it’s astonishing how gentle the filmmakers seem to be to him and, as a result, how completely devoid of candor or introspection he turns out to be. He doesn’t even need to be in denial or deluded about his role in the various tragedies because there’s no indication that he’s been asked about his role in any of them. I’d point to how the directors of HBO’s recent Iran hostage crisis docuseries treated their interviews with members of the hostage-taking student group for a far better example of how to at least get circumspect honesty from people who don’t see themselves as villains. Given how little substance Joyu provides here, the directors would have been better off just not bothering.
The grand summations at the end don’t really work either. You don’t have to watch much media coverage of Aum Shinrikyo and Asahara to understand how a cult of personality around a charismatic leader whom the media treated as a curiosity long past the point at which he had become dangerous — at which time he attempted to delegitimatize the media and attempt a governmental takeover — might evoke comparisons to QAnon, January 6 and the like. The way that connection is made here comes down to Marshall’s lone mealy-mouthed comparison to “how polarized politics is in the U.S. and in the U.K.” If you’re not going to actually make the point, don’t bother with the lip service.
The rise of Aum Shinrikyo and of Asahara, whose biographical details are presented by Joyu with a confusing lack of consistency, is nightmarish stuff and it’s a globally relevant cautionary tale. It probably deserves a better recounting than Aum: The Cult at the End of the World.
Production Company: Fifth Season, Submarine
Director: Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto
Producers: Ben Braun, Chiaki Yanagimoto, Josh Braun, Rick Brookwell
Executive Producer: Ben Schwartz
Editor: Keita Ideno
Directors of Photography: Yohei Tateishi, Tim Sutton
Composer: Dan Braun, Charlie Braun
1 hour 46 minutes
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival